Isolate Israel – Campaign for justice!
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Isolate Israel – Campaign for justice!

Early May 2005 Stop the Wall Campaign published an article on its website entitled ‘Challenging Tramways of Apartheid – Swiss activists block Connex shuttle run’. The article evoked the memories of campaigns to isolate apartheid South Africa.

Research Connex is owned by the French company Veolia . A Dutch bank rooted in ethical principales, that once refused to deal with companies linked in any way to apartheid South Africa has invested in Veolia. Their investments fall in a special environmental fund on the basis of Veolia’s environment, water and transport enterprises. However, the Dutch bank pays no consideration to the impact these projects have on the environment in Palestine, let alone the consequences of trading in a country that routinely violates Palestinian human rights and humanitarian law.

It is now time to engage with this bank again, to remind them of their anti-apartheid past and to convince them to take a stand against Israeli apartheid. However, as lessons from the South African anti-apartheid campaign show, while campaigns for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) can be excellent tools for mobilising an audience, they can never be successful without effective mobilisation in Palestine.

Campaigns to isolate Apartheid South Africa

From the moment the Dutchman Jan van Riebeek set up a trading post in the 17th century, the Dutch government and public have felt strong ties with the white Afrikaners in South Africa. Members of the Afrikaner community were the off-spring of mainly Dutch and French colonisers that came to South Africa in the 17th century, but eventually distanced themselves from the British colonial administration. The Dutch public also felt strong ties with white South Africa for religious reasons, sharing a background in the Dutch Reformed Church.

During the economic crisis that followed the Second World War, many Dutch people emigrated to South Africa. The close economic and cultural ties between the Netherlands and South Africa not only offered clear justification for campaigns to put pressure on the Apartheid regime, it also made it a sensitive issue.

Campaigning is about moving people, touching their hearts and supporting a desire to do something. Every campaign that was organised during the South African anti-apartheid campaign included an element of what either the government or political parties demanded in its contacts with the international community; from Dutch supermarkets selling fruit from South Africa to businesses benefiting from cheap labour because of South African apartheid policies; from artists and academics, athletes and consumers. For decades, BDS activities were organised in Europe. These included specific campaigns for:

– a weapons embargo;
– ending all cultural, academic and sport ties with South Africa (including excluding South Africa from international bodies);
– ending tourism to South Africa;
– ending government subsidies to exports destined for South Africa;
– ending sales of South African fruit and other products, such as gold ‘Kruger Rand’ coins;
– introducing visa restrictions for South Africans wanting to visit the Netherlands and Europe.

Coordination with the African National Congress (ANC) and civic society groups fighting apartheid in South Africa was crucial. Inviting South Africans to speak about living under the deplorable conditions of apartheid had a major impact on audiences in Europe. It offered exiled South Africans living in Europe opportunities to play a role in supporting BDS campaigns in the North.

The ANC supported campaigns in the North in other ways. Initially, the Dutch public expressed its concern for the expected, increased suffering of the black South African population as a consequence of BDS activities. These were arguments raised by liberal white South Africans who wished to avoid confrontation. It offered an easy excuse to do nothing.

By contrast, the ANC had the legitimacy to speak on behalf of black people and publicly gave support to campaigns by way of supportive statements. Another role the ANC played was to specifically request foreign companies to withdraw from South Africa; if they didn’t, the ANC would organise demonstrations in front of target companies and public locations in South Africa.

In order to be more effective, European and US organisations combined their campaigning efforts, taking up the same, or similar issues in order to build momentum.

Characteristics of campaigning

Reflecting on the experiences of campaigning in the Netherlands, some key lessons emerged.

Raising awareness
Informing the public about the situation as part of any campaign is an essential precondition for further action, especially when the public is requested to take action.

Before deciding upon the targets of a campaign, thorough research is needed to identify the “weak spots” of the other side. In the case of South Africa, it discovered that the economy was almost completely dependent on imported oil. Further research in The Netherlands established that Shell, a major Dutch/British oil company, had a strong presence in South Africa. With Shell headquarters located in the Hague, Dutch Shell tankers delivering oil to South Africa and filling stations throughout the country, activists identified numerous opportunities for BDS campaigning.

Clear message
In any campaign, a clear message to the public needs to be developed, linked to clear, achievable demands or goals. Since campaigning is about touching the hearts and minds of the public, the message must appeal to the audience. In the case of the campaign that demanded Shell withdraw from South Africa, BDS activists developed the slogan “Shell fuels apartheid terror”, which appeared on posters and leaflets, accompanied by the famous Shell logo dripping with blood. In this way, a simple message told the whole story.

Time to prepare
It is important for BDS activists to take the time to prepare for a campaign and look for partners. These include: the churches, trade unions, social movements, opinion leaders, artists, sports(wo)men, politicians and others. In the case of South Africa, international collaboration proved to be very successful. In the case of Shell, there were clear links both with the UK. Concerning oil deliveries, the Scandinavian shipping companies were also involved. Activists in different countries co-ordinated their efforts to plan activities on the same issues at the same time, increasing their impact.

Building up
Campaigning is about proper planning, being patient and not being afraid of hard work. Successes are seldom easy or quick, although the campaign to stop sales of the Kruger Rand in the Netherlands took less than half a year. The banks were afraid of damage to their image; at the same time, the banks did not earn that much money with the Kruger Rand. Hence, it was quite easy for activists, in the presence of trade union leaders, to force banks to stop the sales during their first negotiations.

A campaign needs to be build up gradually, from spreading information through the media, to organising events and finally building up to mass actions, including demonstrations, collecting signatures, solidarity concerts and rallies.

Most of all, campaigning is about patience. Decades of campaigning did not, on its own, bring about change in South Africa. It did, however, put some pressure on governments and sent a message of hope to oppressed peoples in South Africa. The end of apartheid came about because the African National Congress did not give up and made effective use of supportive forces abroad.

The case of Connex/Veolia

Palestinian NGOs called for a worldwide boycott of Connex for a very clear and specific reason; because its participation in the Light Rail project in Jerusalem included occupied East Jerusalem. Solidarity groups in Switzerland and France raised their voices to inform the public about how Connex was becoming complicit in these violations of international law.

Connex is owned by the French company Veolia, and this triggered our attention in the Netherlands. A bank that formerly supported the Holland Committee on Southern Africa in the eighties, by producing the Nelson Mandela coin, an alternative to the golden Krugerrand coin. This bank now invests in Veolia. The Dutch bank is well known for its high standards of socially-responsible entrepreneurship, for example by refusing to invest in the arms industry and in highly polluting industries.

Two track approach: Veolia and the Dutch bank

The first step to take was to write both Veolia and the Dutch bank to inform them about the consequences of their involvement in not only the Light Rail project, but also their projects aimed at desalinating and improving the water quality of Lake Ashkelon.

The Light Rail project runs through the occupied Palestinian territories and, according to international law, an occupying power is not allowed to annex or drastically change the infrastructure in the territories it occupies. The advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in July 2004 confirmed that Israel is an occupying power and that building the Wall and Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories is illegal. Veolia’s assistance in the exploitation of the Light Rail from 2009 onwards will make Veolia complicit in Israel’s violations of international law. My savings, as are those of numerous others in the Dutch bank, that invests in Veolia facilitates this complicity.

The Dutch bank replied that they will conduct further research whether investing in Veolia is in line with their policies. They indicated that Israel is not on the EU or UN sanctioned lists of countries with repressive regimes or with a history of structural violations of human rights. However, according to reports produced through the UN High Commission of Human Rights, it has long been established that Israel’s policies lead to structural violations of human rights. The bank reaffirmed its commitment to their principled approach and the importance of human rights. In response, I have sent information about Israel’s well-documented violations of international law, including violations of human rights.

Immediately after sending information that enquired about Veolia’s complicity in Israel’s violations of international law, and implying therefore their own complicity, I withdrew my savings from this specific investment fund. I informed the bank that I expected, within a reasonable period of time, a decision from them about whether they were prepared to withdraw their investments from Veolia. If they don’t do so, I will withdraw all my savings from the bank. I further requested a meeting with representatives from the bank to talk and share information and explore several scenarios.

Veolia’s response

In his letter of 22 May 2006, the executive advisor to the CEO of Veolia Transport wrote that

“Connex’s (Veolia Transport) main interest lays in the future operation of the Light Rail that will not begin before 2009. … the design of the system did not present any risk of discrimination among the various population groups in the area. … it will facilitate public transport in the Jerusalem area to the benefit of the whole local population. We are also satisfied that the legal process undertaken by the local authorities to procure land necessary for the building of the Light Rail does not present any aspect of discrimination or unfair treatment.”

In January 2006, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) conveyed a negative view of the project to Connex. Their response:

“Since then Connex has initiated an assessment process focussed on: The search for independent legal\opinions in order to increase our understanding of the situation in accordance with International Public Law. Discussions with NGOs and Governmental organizations (both in France and Internationally) in order to gather, compare and combine the assessments of a wide range of stakeholders and to seek elements of guidance to this issue.”

Veolia Water

To put more pressure on Veolia, one could include the activities of Veolia Water in Israel. The company is involved in a water project in Lake Ashkelon, south of Tel Aviv. The water quality of this lake needs to be improved because it is too salty. This is related to the fact that Israel is using lots of water for its agricultural projects and stealing water from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israel is illegally depriving Palestinians of their water and creating an ecological disaster. Veolia is assisting Israel in dealing with the consequences of these violations, while standing idly by as the theft of water continues.

Israel violates international humanitarian law and human rights, numerous Security Council Resolutions and the International Court of Justice by illegally exploiting water resources in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and by abusing those resources, including purifying and diverting water for the exclusive use of (illegal) settler communities and Israeli citizens. By participating in these activities, Veolia Water is complicit in these violations of international law.

International networking

The BDS campaign will become more effective when there is a willingness to co-operate not only within a country, but also on an international basis. Well orchestrated campaigns directed at the same or similar targets will send a clear signal to the Israeli government, companies benefiting from Israel as an occupying power and, in the end, Western governments that Israel must be held accountable for its ongoing violations of international law and brutal treatment of the Palestinian people. Western and Palestinian NGOs, in collaboration with the churches and the United Nations Division for Palestinian Rights can take the lead in calling for meetings to jointly plan campaigns. Unlike the eighties, sharing information is relatively easy with access to the internet. It is important to note that the knowledge and potential for developing successful campaigns in the north lies in the stakeholders of the north.

Collaboration with Palestinians

To increase the effectiveness of campaigning in the north, Palestinians living in exile can and should be invited to take part in activities. Campaigns can also be supported with up to date information from Palestinians and peace-loving Israelis, not only about violations of human rights and about the companies that are active in supporting the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, but also about who is visiting Israel.

The campaign to stop Roger Waters from performing in Israel was successful. It also offered an excellent opportunity for collaboration between solidarity groups and key individuals in the UK. The same can be said for the latest efforts to remove Israel from the international soccer federation (FIFA). Many countries can take up the issue and put it on the agenda of FIFA.

Finally, photographs, testimonies and film footage that Palestinians and Israelis can gather of protests they organise can also support campaigns in the north. For example, the yellow Caterpillars or Volvo bulldozers destroying Palestinian houses can be very powerful material to use. The use of clear slogans in English, French, German and Spanish during protests is also helpful in getting the message across.

Campaigns of churches, solidarity groups, trade unions and youth organisations to put pressure on Israel in the North must go hand in hand with the mobilisation of the Palestinian people. The BDS campaign in Europe will not bring freedom and peace in the Middle East on its own, but it can make a very important and powerful contribution.

Adri Nieuwhof is a psychologist and human rights activist who, in the eighties, was involved numerous BDS projects for the Holland Committee on Southern Africa (KZA).